NGO Opposes Coal Mining in Dihing Patkai Elephant Reserve

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 5, May 2020

The Green Guard Nature Organization has called for a reconsideration of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) recommendation to grant permission for coal mining in a part of the Dihing Patkai Elephant Reserve of Assam. The Dihing Patkai landscape is the largest stretch of tropical lowland rainforests in India and is often referred to as "the Amazon of the east".

"A big mistake has been committed by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) by allowing extraction of coal from part of the Dihing Patkai Elephant Reserve. While local communities need better livelihood options during these testing times, it is important to note that coal is a non-renewable resource. Destruction of a natural ecosystem for temporary monetary gains will push the local communities towards a deeper crisis in the future. Additionally, it is known that coal mining is one of the most environmentally damaging human activities - it pollutes air, pollutes river systems and pollutes land equally; it destroys forests, which are habitat for countless plants and animals; causes mercury deposition, affecting freshwater systems and adds to climate change. While the world is making giant strides in moving towards a coal-free economy, clearing a gravely destructive project, especially in one of the most pristine habitats of India, is a regressive step on the part of an apex body such as the NBWL," Dr. Anish Andheria, President, Wildlife Conservation Trust, said in a message.

Amid the countrywide lockdown, the 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of NBWL was held on April 7, 2020, through videoconference, and was chaired by Mr. Prakash Javadekar, the Honourable Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Among other decisions, the NBWL recommended approval of the proposal for use of 98.59 hectares from the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest for a coal-mining project by North-Easter Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India Limited.

“I request the government of India to reconsider this decision to permit coal mining within the Dihing Patkai area. We must respect the sanctity of the rainforest and protect its unmatched biodiversity for eternity. We need to plant more trees and restore degraded forested areas all over the world to fight climate change. Any thought of destroying the ancient rainforests of Assam for coal mining will be suicidal for humankind.”

- Jadav Payeng, Padma Shri awardee, 
known as the Forest Man of India.

It may be mentioned that the proposal was earlier considered during the 54th meeting of the NBWL on July 18, 2019, wherein it was decided to send a committee comprising NBWL member Professor Raman Sukumar and wildlife representatives including the State Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam for a site visit before submitting a report on the feasibility of the proposal.

During the 57th NBWL meeting, Professor Sukumar stated that 57.20 hectares of hilly forestland had already been broken up by NECF while the remaining 41.39 hectares was intact, and recommended that “a cautious approach needs to be adopted in the light of the rich biodiversity”. The proposed area is on a steep hill slope that is part of the Dihing Patkai Elephant Reserve, and is contiguous to forests in the neighboring state of Arunachal Pradesh, including Deomali Elephant Reserve which hosts a sizeable population of elephants. He also stated that it would be prudent to preserve the basic integrity of this forested hill slope.

Rainforests make up only two per cent of the earth's surface, yet they are home to half of all known terrestrial species of biodiversity. The forests of Dihing Patkai harbor more than 50 species of mammals, over 300 species of birds including the critically endangered White-winged Wood Duck, the state bird of Assam, and at least 300 species of butterflies. Over 90 tree species including the Hollong, the ‘state tree’ of Assam and over 107 orchid species including the state flower - the Fox-tail orchid - are found in these forests.

The world is in an unprecedented lockdown and scientists are calling for a halt on destructive projects that endanger the health and survival of indigenous communities. Internationally, civil society groups are standing in solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon, calling for a moratorium on mining, logging, oil extraction, and industrial agriculture in indigenous territories while the world struggles to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The current world situation is a manifestation of our dysfunctional relationship with nature. We have been warned that depletion of wildlife habitats paved the way for the emergence of viruses like HIV, Ebola and coronaviruses. Yet, we want to destroy irreplaceable primary forests in Dihing Patkai and Dibang Valley! Deforestation will increase the emission of global warming gases and worsen the climate crisis. Giving precedence to coal over natural forests is regressive, with progressive nations scheduling an end to coal mining. This is a depressing reflection of the lack of foresight and leadership in India, especially when humanity is threatened by an unprecedented health and climate crisis," said Rituraj Phukan, Secretary-General, Green Guard Nature Organization.

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